Sunday, July 8, 2018

The real value of instruction

Rachel Burnham writes: On last Friday morning I took part in the #LDInsight Twitter chat run by L&D Connect (every Friday 8-9am – why not join in? And there is also a great chat on the first Tuesday in the month 8-9pm using #LDNights from L&D Connect).  The question up for discussion on this occasion was ‘What have you learned about instructional design that helps to deliver on business needs?’ and as often is the case the chat took off in different directions.  One aspect that was discussed a lot was this term ‘instructional design’.

Some people weren’t familiar with this term or were unsure what it meant, but there were also a number of people who didn’t like the term and who don’t use this term to describe what they do.  I was one of those people.

For me, the term ‘instructional design’ feels too limiting, as though it has already been predetermined that what will come out of the design process is some ‘instruction’.  I use instead the wider term of design, as that feels much more open-ended about what may be produced.   Increasingly, this is not just ‘learning’ materials or programmes, but may be linked to other interventions, not necessarily lead by L&D, to impact on performance.

Some people also commented critically about the process of ‘instruction’ – for some this is simply not part of their practice, others seemed to be saying that this was an outdated practice, others implied that facilitation was a more effective approach.  I thought it might be useful to explore the real value of taking an instructional approach.  

I think ‘instruction’ still has its place in modern workplace learning and I think it would be a great shame to lose ‘instruction’ from our repertoire of learning methods.  Actually I think it is more dangerous and risky than that.  

To argue in favour of ‘instruction’ seems like a deeply unfashionable thing to do at the present time.  We know that there is huge value in learners owning their development and driving it.  We know that social learning is such a valuable part of learning.  We are learning more from various fields of psychology and other places about what effective learning involves.  And all of this leads to hard questions about the traditional approaches to designing learning and about just how effective they are.   Plus, like many of us in in L&D, my personal preferred style of working would be for something more facilitative – I don’t see myself as an ‘instructor’.  I would ‘kick’ horribly at being described as an ‘instructor’.

But I think ‘instruction’ does have its place.  It is an option.  And sometimes it is the right option.  One of the troubles is that ‘instruction’ has been over-used and sometimes misused, when other approaches would be more effective.  But sometimes, just sometimes it is the right approach.

For example, if someone needs to learn how to do something and there is only one way of doing that or only very limited options in how you do that – then instruction can be a good choice.  This is particularly true if there are risks involved in doing it incorrectly eg with many medical procedures, using machinery or equipment.  The risks can be to other people or to the person learning how to do that task.  I think ‘instruction’ is less helpful as an approach when there a very wide range of ways of doing something and many ways of doing it effectively eg managing people, communicating with customers, working effectively as a team.

‘Instruction’ can also be useful as a strategy for helping people who are novices learn the basics quickly - this was a point made by Owen Ferguson (@owenferguson) in the #LDInsight chat.  Think about for yourself – if you can’t do a task, often what we do is find someone who can already do that and ask them to show us how – that is ‘instruction’ at its most basic – it may not be all neatly planned out and in a session plan, but it is still ‘instruction’.   Or if we don’t know someone personally, we might search for a YouTube video – most video ‘how-tos’ eg use a piece of software, put up shelves, etc are ‘instructional’.  ‘Instruction’ doesn’t have to be face to face, delivered in a group setting – it could be side by side in the workplace, it could be materials based – a video, flow-chart, or set of clear written step by step guide or a piece of e-learning.   The mode of delivery is different to the fundamental learning method. 

Clive Shepherd talks of four fundamental learning methods in his book ‘More than Blended Learning’:

·       Exposition – the delivery of information from subject-matter expert to learner.   It is easy to immediately think of lectures or presentations – not my favourite learning method and certainly if not accompanied by a surfeit of bullet pointed presentation slides!  But watching a TEDTalk or listening to many podcasts or reading a book/article or even a blog could fall under this.  The mode of delivery is different to the method of learning.

·       Instruction – described as a more systematic process with learning objectives, often using a variety of media and practical exercises to help the learner develop the required knowledge and skills. 
·       Guided Discovery – again a carefully structured approach, but the emphasis here is on creating activities from which learners can gain their own insights and come to their own conclusions.   I use this approach a lot – it works well, in my experience, for aiding the development of L&D professionals, because rarely is there one right way of doing things, instead it is about working out what might be most effectively in the particular circumstances and organisational context.  Again, this doesn’t have to take place in a group face to face setting – I have done a couple of MOOCs based on the Curatr platform in which materials – articles, videos, visuals were shared and which we were encouraged to discuss, reflect on and draw our own conclusions from – I think this is also ‘guided discovery’ but in an online format.

·       Exploration – here all the choices is with the learner.  No pre-determined objectives (save those the learner identifies for themselves), no syllabus, no assessment.    Personal research and unconferences immediately spring to mind as falling into this approach.

So for me, ‘instruction’ is one option.  One approach to learning that can be a really good choice in the right place.   I suspect, we need to be using it a lot less than has been the case in the past, but I think it has its value and I would hate to lose it as an option.  
Design is about making choices.  Choosing the right approach, the right combination of media and a whole array of other choices. It is about working with organisations, stakeholders and learners to make the best choices we can, so that the learning is absolutely as effective as possible.   So, let’s not limit our choices because ‘instruction’ has become uncool.

Rachel Burnham


Burnham L & D works with individuals and organisations to help them learn and work more effectively.  As part of this I help L&D professionals to be even more effective through updating their skills and know-how.  I have a particular interest in curation and the use of digital technologies in learning.  I frequently Sketchnote at events and offer workshops in Sketchnoting.  

1 comment:

  1. "Instruction can also be useful as a strategy for helping people who are novices learn the basics quickly. "

    This is a comment that resonates with me. When I take my daughter to her swimming lesson I want instruction to happen otherwise she won't really "discover" how to swim and be safe.

    You're totally correct in my mind; context should be driving the tools you use.

    I think the use of digital medium can help instruction to be better. For example, in a well designed blended learning course there could be more time for 1:1 or small group instruction which usually leads to better overall learning.